Updated: Jan 22
The start of a new year is the start of the resolutions trend. Everywhere we look (even though it’s not the most popular hashtag anymore), the idea is “New Year, New Me!” Some people have the goal of learning a new skill like playing the guitar or actually finishing that crochet temperature blanket. Maybe some people want to grow out their hair, get a tattoo, or try on a new style. More often than not, though, all of us are going to see at least one person swear their new year will be dedicated to one thing: losing weight.
We all have likely fallen victim to the thought that our bodies are too big for our own liking, especially as our bodies have changed during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us may even have dedicated our own previous years to the goal of dropping pounds and fat from our bodies to gain that “healthier” look. We get pulled into social media whirlpools of before and after photos of people who reached that level of success. A woman now fits her entire body into a single pant leg of a garment she wore last year or a man’s muscular landscape of a body appears on your feed, each of them promising the look is possible and worth it with simple steps or diet plans. However, when we think realistically, many of us may have stopped after the first few months, or sometimes even weeks. Then we spiral again into a range of thoughts that may be from, “It’s just not working for me,” to, “I hate this body I am in,” to even, “I guess I’ll just try again next year.” A common thread in all of this? The same message that is indoctrinated in us since nearly birth: skinny is healthy, successful, and beautiful.
A message we aren’t given very often, if at all, is that our bodies are fine the way that they are. There is no direct correlation between body size and physical health because one person’s version of “healthy” is going to be different from another person’s version of “healthy.” We are all born into bodies with different constellations of genetics and human histories that shaped the way our bodies look, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is seriously nothing wrong with that. And if you are currently struggling with body image, let us be explicit as we say this: there is nothing wrong with you.
Beauty across human history
The thin, slender, straight haired, pale skin, blue-eyed human has not always been the primary standard for what the world considered gorgeous. In fact, human history has always been fluid in their beauty standard. In Ancient Greece, male muscularity and female full-figures were considered the top standard of beauty. During the Italian Renaissance, a large bosom with a rounded tummy and full hips were considered beautiful (see this link to look at how beauty standards have changed for every time period). For every era, regardless of the beauty standard, there was always a list of arbitrary tips and tricks to achieve the look that was considered attractive. And for every era, the pressure was often on women-identified individuals to carry the burden of looking beautiful.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that you saw a general merging of what was considered high-ranking gorgeousness in most countries: thin, slender, straight haired, pale skin. How many people in the world do you know fit that mold?
If you aren’t already thinking it, we’ll say it here: the current and most pervasive beauty standard (and thus even health standard) is rooted in cisgender, White norms. Unfortunately, this is also written in the history of the way we operationalize, or measure, health and beauty.
Racial origins of health and beauty
If you’ve never heard of the body mass index (BMI), it is a tool that is widely used in the medical community as a standard for determining whether someone is in the underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese categories. Some people in their new year journey will consistently turn to BMI calculators and weigh themselves to obsessively calculate where they fall. However, there is much to be said about the flaws in this system.
The BMI was created by a Belgian mathematician (not a medical professional) named Adolphe Lambert Jacques Quetelet in the 19th century. It was used to measure a person relative to the population (which was largely White). It’s a 200-year-old system that is not rooted in medical science, is seriously outdated, and severely lacks representation of all bodies from all cultures. And yet, we still use it to this day to measure what health looks like after two centuries of huge sociohistorical milestones that include access to resources, medical milestones, and research. We can go on and on about the BMI as a horrible calculator for your health, but this article speaks to it more!
In terms of racial history, there was a shift in the beauty standards at the start of the slave trade because White colonizers realized that Black and African enslaved people were noticeably curvier compared to European bodies. The narrative that enslaved people were inferior, immoral, ugly, and larger gave rise to the narrative that White Europeans were superior, moral, beautiful, and must be thinner. You can listen to this podcast for more about this shift in history. Also, this was far from the first time Whiteness was championed as the standard (you can look at numerous countries where beauty standards shift toward the Western ideal).
Beauty standards have consistently celebrated Whiteness as the beauty standard. While we see it in our everyday life and perhaps in specific people in our lives, the entire landscape is pointing to a systems issue, not an individual issue. What we mean is this: White people in our society have significantly greater access to healthcare, wealth, resources, and thus power compared to racial and ethnic minorities (REMs) or black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC). So, White people generally have a greater chance of achieving the standard that was based upon them to begin with. Now, this is not to say that all White people must then fit the beauty standard, because that isn’t the case. Remember, the beauty standard is what many are pursuing, not actively achieving, but White people have greater access to resources to actually make it happen.
Sneer behind the smile: The dieting industry
Speaking of resources, you may have heard of all of the diet fads that have passed throughout the years. The Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, vegan diet, keto diet, paleo diet, among countless others that (to no surprise) also vary by the trends of the eras in which they were created. The dieting industry rakes in billions of dollars every year promoting fast fat loss and quick results to gain that hot girl summer body. The reality, though, is different from the image the industry portrays. Diet fads are more likely to lead to yo-yo dieting, or your body’s response to mass lost too quickly as it tries to gain it back, and some (check out this Times article that talks more about it). There are endless “success” stories that perhaps allow a person to reach that coveted size only for your body to respond in ways that are absolutely normal: gain the weight back and sometimes even more at a fast rate. The industry is not only preying on adults; you may have heard the news about Weight Watchers’ campaign targeted to encourage young teens and children to diet with little to no support for actual health.
All of these programs have a few things in common: (1) they hold the white, cis, heterosexual image of health as a person who is thin, slender, and likely light-skinned, (2) they come with promises of quick weight loss or solutions, and (3) they make you believe that something is inherently wrong with your body without considering actual indicators of health besides appearance and numbers on a weighing scale.
Sizeism: A form of accepted discrimination
What we’re talking about in this blog may be a huge paradigm shift from what you’ve been taught your entire life, so we understand if it’s difficult for you to take in or accept all at once. The narrative that is read to us and the music that is played in our heads have helped to write a script that we thought was supposed to guide us. However, when you look at the hurt and pain that is caused by the ideal beauty standard, that later translates into our new year resolutions, it’s hard to deny.
In the article Sizeism is a Health Hazard, Chrisler and Barney (2016) go more in depth about the systemic issues related to size and discrimination. Fat people or living in larger bodies experience discrimination based on their size. In doctor offices, they are often told that their weight is the source of their problems without examining other factors. For example, a fat person may walk into a doctor’s office for an ear infection treatment and receive unsolicited advice about their weight (that obviously has NOTHING to do with their ear infection!), or enter an eye doctor’s office only to receive comments about their size. The world was built for straight bodied people (those of a size 10 and below). Fat people or people in larger bodies live with greater stress by wondering if a chair will be able to support them, if clothes are going to be available to them, if they are walking into any space where their body is the topic of conversation because of society’s problem with it. All of these are forms of size discrimination, or sizeism, that can lead to serious consequences: fat people or larger bodied people may have more cortisol in their blood stream due to stress that may lead to greater heart problems due to worries of discrimination, not becaues they are fat. They may also avoid going to get the healthcare they need altogether to avoid discrimination from the healthcare system. And with any form of discrimination (whether it be from racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), there is a greater risk of developing depressive and anxious symptoms.
Much of this does not have anything to do with being fat or having a larger body; much of it DOES have to do with society’s response to bodies that don’t fit a beauty standard.
What am I supposed to do with all of this information?
Before we go down another rabbit hole of information, we don’t want to take away the main message of this post. We know now that you can’t determine a person’s health simply by looking at them because health will look different for everyone (see Health at Every Size or HAES). We know that beauty standards today have deep roots in racism and that sizeism is a greater issue than fatness itself. However, if you want to make weight loss a goal on your new year resolutions list, this isn’t something we’re telling you not to do. If anything, we only ask that you try to examine why this might be the case.
You can ask some of these questions for yourself:
What does the ideal beautiful person look like for me? Where did this image come from?
What messages have I been told about my body (whether it be my hair, my skin, my shape, my height, etc.) that are good? What messages have I been told about my body that are bad?
Who in my life has perpetuated the ideal body image?
Undoing the messages that have been repeated to us over a lifetime is hard. We recognize this. Despite the intricate root system sizeism has on us, there are a number of things we can do.
Listen to your body’s needs. Our bodies are functioning as they are meant to. If you’re thirsty, drink. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not hungry but you want to eat, why is that? Sometimes we do things out of boredom or comfort rather than to satisfy a bodily need.
Look at diverse media. We are surrounded by the same body type when it comes to advertisements and even social media posts. Try following size-affirming accounts like @fit.flexible.fluid and @bodyimagewithbri on instagram. Also look for weight-inclusive dieticians like @encouragingdietician and @thenutritiontea on Instagram!
Challenge your own weight/size bias. When you have a negative reaction toward seeing a body that is different from yours or one that does not fit the beauty standard, acknowledge it; don’t run away from it. Identify it and then actively challenge it. What was the origin of that reaction? What do you know about health? What do you know about their health? (probably nothing, and it isn’t anyone’s business, anyway!)
Do what helps your body feel nourished and good. Whether it be joyful movement like dancing, going on walks, or gardening, do things that feel good and are accessible to you. You don’t have to engage in the traditional script of exercise if you don’t enjoy it (especially if you don’t enjoy it). Movement can look like anything; you don’t have to justify it.
Engage in self-compassion. There will be moments when you fall or catch yourself reverting back to the narrative that skinny is pretty, moral, and good. Remember, this is a script that we have all heard over and over again for many years, and so it’s a script that will take effort to re-write. Speak to yourself kindly, especially during the new year when the narrative is extra loud.
Find size-affirming clinicians. There are doctors and medical providers that will not put an emphasis on your weight when they treat you (believe us, they're out there!). If your weight is a concern and you and your doctor think it is rooted to a medical or psychological cause, you deserve to get help from someone who will not shame you for something that is out of your control.
Speak out against fatphobia and sizeism. Size discrimination is one of the widest accepted forms of discrimination. If you feel safe doing so, try sharing information or gently challenging people in your circle with care. You can even set boundaries around fat talk (when people in a group criticize their body that usually results in shared compliment-giving) by saying things like, “I do not want to talk about my/your/any bodies,” or gently change the subject to show your discomfort at the discrimination that is occurring.
You may also want to check out the book, The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, a queer, fat, Black woman who works to help others find empowerment in their bodies. She dives into greater depth about how we do not enter this world hating our bodies, but that society teaches us things to dislike and silence.
Overall, we hope that this new year, you ring in a bell of self-compassion and exploration. We wish for you a year of healing, a year of growth, a year of exploration, a year of awareness. And as we ring in this new year together (even from this virtual distance!), we want to remind you that all of us at Cultured Space will be here when you’re ready for that next step.